Azdak (Christopher Lloyd) is a difficult character. As played by Mr. Lloyd—with a bright, shining bald head, a Neanderthal’s brow, and Dumbo ears—he looks like a man who got lost, and who was perhaps mauled by several rabid dogs, on his way to the set of The Hills Have Eyes. Azdak is the backbone, if not the protagonist, of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. After a popular uprising, this scrivener impresses some soldiers with his humor and is appointed judge of his region. For two years, he accepts bribes freely and yet rarely makes good on them; his time in power is spent on drink, on women, and on irrationally favoring the poor in court over the rich. He has some affinity with Robin Hood and Jack Falstaff, though his ethical code is almost impossible to locate and his sense of mirth severely limited. He is remembered after his reign as having presided over a Golden Age, though this is impossible to accept: while his decisions favor the disenfranchised, they are erratic, inconsistent, and occasionally indefensible.
His purpose, dramatically, is to render justice on the case of a maid, Grusha (Elizabeth A. Davis), who takes care of her mistresses’ (Mary Testa) abandoned child for two years before an issue of inheritance draws the heartless, biological mother back to fight for custody. The plot, however, isn’t especially important—based on a fourteenth century work by Li Qianfu, Circle of Chalk, Brecht’s story will be familiar to Western audiences as a variation on the Judgment of Solomon. But he introduces so many ethical and political complications that Grusha’s plight dims as we try to make sense of how to read Azdak.
Mr. Lloyd, given the burden of this character, does an excellent job. He hacks and coughs out his lines, alternately playing an icon, a Shakespearean fool, and a deeply unhappy drunk. Director Brian Kulick has also chosen to give him the part of the “signer” (or narrator), which may prove thematically confusing, but he has such a rich voice—with the melancholy but reassuring texture of a well-read bedtime story—that we can hardly fault the mistake. Ms. Testa is fine in her much less interesting role, and Tom Riis Farrell, playing a corporal, is deliciously over the top, chug-a-chugging his arms as he walks as if they were the rods of a train.
Mr. Kulick has also updated the play, setting it not in ancient China (as is written) but around the fall of the Soviet Empire, allowing the set to be a blend of bright, Western commercialism and Russian symbols, so a giant Coca Cola label brushes elbows with chalk drawings of Communist heroes. Brecht sympathized with socialism, of course, and when Azda completes a graffito drawing of a hammer and sickle towards the end of the play, I suspect Mr. Kulick has decided to turn the judge into a revolutionary hero. I think the character is more ambiguous than that, but a director does not have the same luxury of open interpretation as does a reader. He has undoubtedly assembled a handsome, intelligent revival.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle can be a frustrating play, one whose emotions are not easy to locate; consistent with Brecht’s interest in alienating his audience, this is not a production that inspires much feeling from us. Instead, its greatest pleasures are to be found after the curtain, when one attempts to unwrap its many contradictions.
The Caucasian Chalk Circle runs through June 23rd at the Classic Stage Company. 136 E. 13th Street New York, NY. 2 hours 20 minutes. One intermission.